Column: time for a middle path to teachers’ contract

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Deadlock won’t be solved by more posturing and playing politics

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

It’s Monday afternoon, and I don’t have the slightest idea of what to write.

Another manifesto from the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District popped into my email box Friday afternoon, which to be honest was not a lot different from the manifesto from the Unionville Chadds Ford Education Association a week or so earlier.

Basically, both said “we’re being reasonable and really want a deal, the other guys aren’t.”

One of the comments I get from readers the most often is praise for our coverage of the Unionville schools, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the heck to write about this development this afternoon.

Here’s the salient facts, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: the district and the teachers have gone some 14 months without a contract and until June, it looked like slow steady progress toward a deal was being made. Now, if anything, the two sides appear further apart and both sides are pointing fingers at the other, as we sit three weeks from the first day of the new school year.

You’ll excuse me if I feel a bit like I’m dealing with my 10-year-old twins, instead of a group of educated, intelligent grownups.

Look, I understand that those negotiating are dealing with a wide range of issues — and opinions on their respective sides. From speaking with both sides throughout this drawn-out process, I know that both sides have folks hell-bent-for-leather to draw-a-line-in-the-sand (and they say folks don’t know how to use cliches anymore) and not compromise.

As we watch the financial markets crater this week, it seems likely we’ve all gotten a sense of the benefits of “no compromise” in the public arena. I’m hoping that it’s a lesson not lost on folks here.

Being in the unique situation of being a district parent and taxpayer in addition to having to regularly write about this ongoing process, aside from talking to everyone directly involved, I talk to a lot of parents and residents, stopping for coffee at The Landhope, or buying food at SuperFresh or at some local sporting or scouting event.

They’ll ask me what I think and I get about four words in when they usually cut me off.

“They’re acting like a bunch of spoiled kids. Somebody ought to send them to their rooms and take away their Nintendo DSs,” they say about both sides, or words to that effect, many of which can’t be used in a family publication.

There’s an anger here, at least equal to that seen after the Unionville High School renovation bond referendum fiasco. Talking to people, the sense is that the teachers are greedy while the school board is now seen as overly focused on cutting spending and making political points. While that’s not my personal opinion, it is a growing perception of both sides among the public and parents.

Folks aren’t dumb, when both sides claim to want deal but talks do nothing but go backward, the truth becomes evident. You have to judge people not by their words, but by their actions. And the actions here speak for themselves.

I’m not suggesting that the issues here are easy to solve, they’re not. But if both sides were as passionate as they claim about getting a deal done, it would be done already.

If I had all of the numbers — the real numbers, not the ones issued by both sides for public relations purposes — running out to 2015, plus some sit-down time in Harrisburg to get a sense of where the real pension numbers are headed (let’s remember it was those same estimates being used now to claim financial Armageddon that made it possible for school boards and the legislatures to drastically cut their pension contributions starting 2001) and what the legislature really is going to do about them, I probably could put together a three-year deal that no one would like, but everyone — taxpayers, parents, teachers and so on — could live with.

But — and maybe this is the hold up — it wouldn’t be a model contract for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (the state teachers’ union) to point to and it probably wouldn’t get any school board members invited to speak at the local Tea Party rally.

The frame would be something like this: the teachers have to compromise on salary and health care. The district has compromise on work rules, seniority and health care. You’ll note I dinged them both of health care, as neither side seems to have put forth a reasonable plan there; the teachers don’t want to accept the real impact of cost increases, while the board wants to expose teachers and their families to drastically higher financial risk.

And as many have suggested, kick out the hired help: ditch the high-priced school board labor attorney and state union rep. At this point, no one without skin in the game should be in the room.

I suspect there are any number of people in the community who could come up with the same basic formula, by the way.

As was the case in 2007 in the high school renovation drama, no one seems inclined to take the middle road and there seems to be a lot of “my way, or the highway” chest thumping. Unionville still hasn’t recovered from that mistake and may not for quite some time.

That can’t happen again, both for the sake of the schools and for the larger community, where interest groups are increasingly being pitted against each other.

A deal needs to get done, not just a deal for a deal’s sake, but a tough, but truly fair one that balances the needs of teachers, students, their parents and the taxpaying public at large.

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